The University of Michigan’s joint Ph.D. program in Scientific Computing recently achieved a record enrollment of 137 students. Between 2015, when 15 students were enrolled -mainly from the Colleges of Engineering and Literature, Science and the Arts- and today, the program has witnessed an explosive growth of interest on the part of U-M students. The program now has students enrolled from over 30 departments spanning 8 different schools and colleges, and more than 130 students have graduated in the last 31 years, including 17 students to-date in 2020.
Left side, 2167 configuration console for the IBM/System 360 Model 67-2 (duplex) at the University of Michigan, c. 1969 [Picture by Scott Gerstenberger – Scott Gerstenberger, Public Domain]
This popularity is emblematic of the dominant role that computation plays in the world today. With the breakneck pace at which new hardware and software architectures are being developed, the boom in simulation-based research in a growing number of disciplines, and the initiatives in data and computational sciences implemented at U-M in the last few years, including the establishment of the Michigan Institute for Computational Discovery & Engineering, and the Michigan Institute for Data Science (MIDAS), it may seem only natural that scientific computing should attract this level of interest. However, like all exceptionally successful undertakings, it owes a great deal to its past. We reached back more than three decades to piece together the history of the Ph.D. in Scientific Computing at U-M.
The broader history of computational science and high performance computing at the University of Michigan is rich and extensive. U-M has been at the forefront of Cyberinfrastructure research for many decades, marked by the acquisition of U-M’s first virtual memory computer in 1967, an IBM 360/67, one of the first computers of its kind in the world. This milestone was followed by many others, including further hardware acquisitions and establishment of new units to support advanced research computing. An important early step was taken in 1985 when the College of Engineering established the Laboratory for Scientific Computation (LaSC). LaSC’s goal was to foster and promote the use of scientific computation in research and instruction at U-M. During those years, several reports from national study committees established computational science as the third pillar of scientific methodology, along with theory and experimentation. Faculty members of LaSC, who were at the forefront of driving these trends recognized that any initiative in this field needed to include a robust student training program.
left: Prof. Kenneth Powell (Aerospace Engineering), director of the Ph.D. in Scientific Computing program since 2005; right: Prof. William Martin (Nuclear Eng. and Rad. Sciences), director of the program from 1989 to 2004.
Prominent at that time in LaSC were Prof. William “Bill” Martin (Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences – NERS), the laboratory’s director, Prof. John Boyd (Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences), the laboratory’s associate director, and Prof. Edward Larsen (NERS), who was hired as part of the College of Engineering’s initiative to move aggressively in the area of scientific computing. Together, they designed a graduate academic program with the goal of giving students a more comprehensive training in numerical analysis and computer science than is typically possible within standard disciplinary programs housed within individual departments and schools. The fundamental idea was that, to excel in computational science and engineering, one must have a thorough understanding of the mathematical and physical problems to be solved, expertise in the methodologies and algorithms, and a foundation in computer science to be able to apply this arsenal of techniques on modern computer platforms. The need for a thorough understanding of the physical problems led directly to the requirement that students had to be enrolled in a traditional Rackham degree program (i.e., a home department), while the need for mathematical underpinning and knowledge of algorithms and computer science topics led to the requirements for courses in numerical analysis, parallel algorithms, and related topics. The PhD in Scientific Computing program was approved by the State of Michigan in 1988, and enrolled its first students in 1989. This was well in advance of a wider recognition of the centrality of computation in academia and industry. It is true today, as it was in 1988, that students can apply to the PhD in Scientific Computing program from any Rackham-recognized PhD program at the UM. This unique and flexible administrative structure has enabled the rapid growth experienced in recent years as scientific computing has become an indispensable tool in many fields of academic endeavor.
The oversight of the degree program has evolved over the years as administrative structures around scientific computing have shifted. Regardless of its administrative home, the program has always been organized under the Rackham School of Graduate Studies. Originally, the College of Engineering had oversight of the program, with Prof. Martin appointed as director, and with guidance from the LaSC Education Committee. This setup continued through the merger of LaSC and the Center for Parallel Computing1 into the Center for Advanced Computing in 2001. In 2005, Prof. Kenneth Powell (Aerospace Engineering) was named director of the program succeeding Prof. Martin, and has continued in the role since. In 2008, the Office of Research Cyberinfrastructure (ORCI) was established, and the oversight of the program changed to the U-M Office of Research. In 2013, when ORCI was re-named as Advanced Research Computing, and the Michigan Institute for Computational Discovery & Engineering (MICDE) was born, oversight was transferred to MICDE.
Prof. Quentin Stout, director of the Center for Parallel Computing 1992-2001 [Picture source: NASA Insights 1998]
Since its inception, the program has been described as intended for students who will make intensive use of large-scale computation, computational methods or algorithms in their doctoral studies. Although the requirements and goals of the program have not changed in 31 years, the research applications, the algorithms and methodologies, and the computer platforms have been in constant evolution. Naturally, the courses offered in support of the program have followed closely. In 1989 the core research areas behind the program were computational fluid dynamics, advanced computer architectures, and particle transport, with the majority of the students coming from engineering, and mathematics. Still, students working in areas where computation was less recognized, such as AIDS transmission or social research projects, also were enrolled. Over the next two decades, the tremendous increase in simulation-based research by the faculty in engineering and physical sciences added many other focus areas, including material science, astronomy, and high energy physics, to name just a few. This growth added a new driver as data-intensive research gained importance in those fields.
Several faculty members have had an important role shaping the program, by offering fundamental courses and providing mentorship. Notably, Prof. Quentin Stout, from Computer Science and Engineering, has had a prominent role in the program. He was the founding director of the Center for Parallel Computing, which provided the basis for subsequent units in this sphere at U-M. He also developed, and has been teaching, Parallel Computing since 1985, innovating its curriculum to remain at the cutting edge of the current techniques, important aspects of which have been based on his own research. Other foundational courses, such as the Department of Mathematics’ Numerical Methods for Scientific Computing I & II and Numerical Linear Algebra have been offered for more than 30 years. More recently the Department of Physics course, Computational Physics, and the College of Engineering course, Methods and Practice of Scientific Computing, along with an array of courses in machine learning, have played prominent roles in transforming the curriculum in scientific computing as research in these areas has likewise redefined the field.
Prof. Suzanne Weekes, Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies, ad interim, and Professor of Mathematical Sciences at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (U-M 1995, Mathematics and Scientific Computing) [Picture source: SIAM News Sept. 2020]
Unsurprisingly, the Ph.D. in Scientific Computing has produced many exceptional alumni. The first student graduated from the program in 1992, and notably for its time, two of the first four graduates were women, when gender imbalance was barely recognized. A majority of the program graduates went on to positions in academia or the National Laboratories, with the rest working in varied fields in industry or government. Some of these outstanding alumni include Suzanne Weekes, U-M 1995 (Mathematics and Scientific Computing), currently Associate Dean of Undergraduate Studies, ad interim, and Professor of Mathematical Sciences at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Prof. Weekes has recently been named SIAM executive director, and will start her new role on January 1, 2021. Another alumna, Rona Oran, U-M 2014 (Space Science and Scientific Computing), is a computational plasma physicist at MIT and a member of the NASA team that is designing and planning a mission to the metal asteroid Psyche to be launched in 2020.
The current goal of the program is still founded on the original idea of strengthening the students’ foundations in methodology and computer science. The leadership of the program strives to bring computational science to more research fields, but importantly, aims to do so by enhancing diversity in the field. An important marker of U-M’s success on this front came in 2018 in the form of the Henry Luce Foundation’s award to the University of two Claire Boothe Luce Ph.D. fellowships for women to enroll in the Ph.D. in Scientific Computing. The program is committed to pursuing other such opportunities and creating an environment where students of all backgrounds and identities feel welcome and thrive.
1 In 1992 U-M was awarded a major equipment grant by the National Science Foundation to create a testbed of parallel computing architectures. The Center for Parallel Computing was established to operate the facility. The center installed and operated several different parallel computers over the years, including KSR-1, KSR-2, Convex Exemplar, SGI PowerChallenge, IBM SP2, and AMD and Apple clusters.